September 23, 2019

Survivors — Not Victims

To see Mindy Finkelstein and Joshua Stepakoff today, one might easily take them for siblings, or at least cousins. They are relaxed in each other’s presence, as only two people can be who share a common bond — even if, as in this case, that bond involves a successful escape from a gunman.

Finkelstein, an attractive young woman with curly, blonde-streaked hair, is now 26. She graduated the University of California Santa Barbara in 2005, and has spent the past several years working as a production assistant and assistant line producer on television shows, including “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” In April she left a position at Universal Media Studios to pursue a new and old interest: planning events for nonprofit organizations.

Stepakoff is now 16, the age his companion was when the shooting occurred. His demeanor reflects his personality — serious, quiet, reserved. He relaxes when talking about his passion for music — he plays guitar and recently completed an internship with a music producer — and the difficulties for teenagers of finding a job in the current recession.

Despite the passage of time, both have vivid memories of the JCC shooting.

Joshua Stepakoff: I was walking into the center after a game of capture the flag and saw a man coming in the door with what looked like a drill in his hand. I thought he was a construction worker. The next thing I remember is getting up from the ground and running as fast as I could the other way. I had a broken leg and a bullet in my hip and somehow managed to run.

Mindy Finkelstein: I was with a camper, James Sidell, and Joshua was behind us. James asked, ‘Which way do you want to go, to the [arts and crafts room] or to the pool?’ So I said ‘arts and crafts,’ and went through the front room. That’s when Furrow walked in and shot me.

JS: I made it outside. My counselor told me to lie down on the ground, and then our custodian picked me up and took me to the little red schoolhouse [on the property]. Then the paramedics took me out on a gurney and the helicopter took me to the hospital. For some reason, my brother thought that was really cool. 

MF: I grabbed James and ran into the arts and crafts room. There were about 35 kids there. The kids all thought they heard hammering. One of the kids saw [the blood on] my leg and asked ‘What’s that?’ and the counselors said ‘It’s paint.’

There was an emergency exit in that room; the counselors took all the kids out and I was one of the last ones out. I remember Furrow shot at us through the glass door as we were leaving. The other counselors took the kids to the convalescent hospital, but one of them, Lizette, stayed behind with me. She said to lie down and play dead, and the worst things were running through my head. To this day, I’m just in awe of her and of all the other counselors. They’re remarkable people.

Jewish Journal: What was it like for you in the aftermath of the shooting?

JS: There was always the feeling of not being safe. That’s how I felt for many years. If anything, it made me believe more in Judaism and how it gives you, in a time of need, something to turn to.

MF: The immediate aftermath was a whirlwind. At 16, you’re dying for that much attention. We had a month of being at home, and it was a party every day, which was great until it ended. Then you’re busy dealing with what happened to you and how you return to normalcy. 

Graduating from high school meant leaving my safety zone. Everything about me just crumbled. I went up to [the University of California in] Santa Barbara, and within three days, a guy walked into my room with a fake Nerf gun, and that did it for me. My parents came, and I went back home for a year.

JJ: Mindy, you testified at Furrow’s sentencing hearing. Were you satisfied with the outcome?

MF: I was old enough by then to make the decision to speak for myself. I thought it was really important, in order to get closure. The last image I had of him was his being handcuffed and taken out of the room. He’s in for life; he can’t hurt me.

JJ: Tell me about the 5k/10k event you’re planning for October.

MF: Josh came to me and said, it’s the 10-year anniversary, and I want to do something to honor the day. I had never heard anything like that from him before; if he’s ready, there’s nothing that could stop me. So it’s in the planning stages now, and we’re looking for sponsors.

JS: I want to draw attention to the issue of gun violence, especially for teenagers. I want to try to prevent what happened to us from happening to them. Something kids need to know from day one is that you don’t go around pointing a gun at anybody. We also need to educate the public and the community about hate crimes, not just educate kids. People think ‘It’s not going to happen to me,’ but most likely people find it will hit you, whether indirectly, through a family member, a best friend or yourself. That mentality, that it’s never going to happen to me, is a horrible way to think.

JJ: What would you like to say to other young people who have been victims of hate crimes?

JS: It took me eight or nine years to realize that I let this event control how I lived my life on a day-to-day basis, and that it didn’t have to be that way. I have switched to thinking of it as I’m in control. He [Furrow] wanted me to see what he did as an act of hate, but I see it as a wonderful opportunity to do great things.

MF: There are people out there, anti-Semites and racists, who feel you don’t deserve to be here. No one has the right to tell you that, or to make you believe that. If Josh and I are an example of anything, it’s that you can go on to make something of your life. We’re not victims — we’re survivors.